Image: Endeavour Crater
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU
A portion of the west rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars sweeps southward in this color view from NASA's Opportunity rover. The view combines exposures taken on Aug. 6, with the colors adjusted to reflect what the human eye would see.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/10/2011 12:38:45 PM ET 2011-08-10T16:38:45

NASA's Opportunity rover has reached the rim of a 14-mile-wide crater after nearly three years of traveling across desolate Martian plains, scientists reported Wednesday.

The six-wheeled, golf-cart-sized robot signaled mission managers on Tuesday that it arrived at a location called Spirit Point on Endeavour Crater's rim, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported in a mission update.

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Scientists selected Endeavour as Opportunity's grandest destination in 2008, after the rover investigated a far smaller target known as Victoria Crater. They say Endeavour should provide an unparalleled opportunity to track the geological history of the Red Planet.

Craters are carved by asteroids or comets impacting into the Martian surface and exposing geological layers from different points in history. Endeavour is the fourth crater that Opportunity will explore, and offers the oldest deposits yet. The studies ahead are expected to provide further clues to Mars' warmer and wetter past.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has already seen signs that clay minerals are present within Endeavour.

"We're soon going to get the opportunity to sample a rock type the rovers haven't seen yet," JPL's Matthew Golombek, a rover science team member, said in Wednesday's update. "Clay minerals form in wet conditions, so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment that appears to have been very different from those responsible for the rocks comprising the plains."

Last rover standing
The name Spirit Point informally commemorates Opportunity's twin rover, which stopped communicating in March 2010 after getting stuck in loose sand. Mission managers believe the solar-powered rover gave up the ghost due to its inability to generate enough electricity to keep itself going. Spirit's mission officially concluded in May.

"Our arrival at this destination is a reminder that these rovers have continued far beyond the original three-month mission," said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL.

This week's milestone brings a renewed sense of adventure to a mission that wowed the public with color portraits of the landscape and the unmistakable geologic discoveries of a warm and wetter past.

For more than a year, the only pictures coming back from the Martian surface have shown Meridiani Planum, the rocky, dune-swept plain that Opportunity has been traversing. Endeavour is about seven miles away from Victoria, but the rover had to take a circuitous 13-mile route to avoid obstacles. It also had to drive backward to keep its right front wheel from wearing out.

Opportunity will spend several months imaging the rim and interior, which has been partially filled in by rocks and sediments. There are no plans to drive across the crater for fear of getting stuck, Callas said. Instead, it will traverse south along the rim.

"We will likely spend years at this location," Callas said. "What a destination! It's not just one spot. There's kilometers of interesting geology to explore."

Extraterrestrial overachievers
The NASA rovers parachuted to opposite sides of Mars in 2004 for what was a planned three-month mission, but both robots operated far beyond their factory warranty. Opportunity has logged more than 20 miles since its landing.

The original twin-rover mission cost $800 million, but the cost and personnel requirements have come down dramatically over the past seven years. Callas estimates that the cost of Opportunity-only operations is $12 million per year.

NASA's next Mars-bound spacecraft is the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover. That car-sized, nuclear-powered robot is due for launch in late November.

In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the current and future missions to Mars demonstrate that "NASA is continuing to write remarkable chapters in our nation's story of exploration."

"Opportunity's findings and data from the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory will play a key role in making possible future human missions to Mars and other places where humans have not yet been," Bolden said.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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